WASHINGTON – Soon after being elected to the U.S. Senate, Joe Biden was pulled aside by a Democratic colleague who wanted to know how he was going to vote on abortion.
Biden explained that while he was personally opposed to abortion and would resist federal funding for the procedure, he didn’t want to impose his view on others by overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
“That’s a tough position, kid,” said Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut. Then Ribicoff offered him some advice, Biden recalled years later in a memoir: “Pick a side. You’ll be much better off politically. Just pick a side.”
During five decades in elected office, Biden has tried to avoid picking a side on abortion whenever he could. Now that's impossible as the Supreme Court seems poised to strike down the constitutional right to abortion. A draft copy of the court's majority opinion was published by Politico earlier this week, and a final decision is expected this summer.
As the Democratic president who happens to be serving when the Republicans' anti-abortion agenda reaches its crescendo, Biden is being drafted into the kind of fight that he's sidestepped for much of his career.
It’s not a natural role for him, despite his longtime defense of a woman's right to choose whether to end her pregnancy. Like many Catholic Democrats, he's expressed conflicting opinions on abortion, which his church regards as a sin but his political party views as a legal right.
Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Biden “understands there’s a difference between his personal view and what he would do in his personal life, and what he and his party stands for in terms of protecting freedoms for the American people.”
Although Biden called for protecting Roe v. Wade in his State of the Union speech in March, since becoming president he had never publicly uttered the word “abortion” until this week, when the draft court decision leaked. And he still prefers to frame the issue around privacy and people's ability to make their own decisions free from government interference.
“This is about a lot more than abortion,” he said Wednesday at the White House. He often references other court decisions on same sex marriage or birth control. “What are the next things that are going to be attacked?”
It's the kind of rhetoric that he deployed successfully during the 1987 confirmation hearings for Robert Bork, President Ronald Reagan's nominee to the Supreme Court.
Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he focused his questioning on Griswold v. Connecticut, a 1965 decision that allowed married couples to buy birth control.
“If we tried to make this a referendum on abortion rights, for example, we’d lose," he wrote in his 2007 memoir, “Promises to Keep.”
Biden's handling of the issue was a sharp contrast with colleagues like Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who said in a speech that “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions.”
“No one could have ever confused then-Sen. Biden with being a culture warrior,” said Jim Manley, a longtime Senate staff member who worked for Kennedy and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Bork's nomination was defeated, preventing a rightward shift on the Supreme Court that could have jeopardized Roe v. Wade.
But there was still lingering suspicion about Biden's support for abortion rights. Victoria Nourse, a lawyer who worked for Biden in the Senate, said the distrust became an obstacle when he was working on the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 and increased protections against sexual assault and domestic abuse.
“The women’s groups wouldn’t come on board, because they thought he was weak on abortion,” she said.
The issue returned in 2019, when Biden was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Biden faced criticism for his support of the Hyde Amendment, which banned federal funding for abortions, and he swiftly reversed course on his longtime position.
Biden explained his shift by saying “circumstances have changed” because Republican-led states were enacting new abortion restrictions.
“I make no apologies for my last position,” he said. “I make no apologies for what I’m about to say.”
It was a change that mirrored a broader shift in American politics. Michele Swers, a professor of government at Georgetown, said it used to be more common to find anti-abortion Democrats and Republicans who support abortion rights.
Biden became a U.S. senator in January 1973, the same month the Roe v. Wade decision was issued, and he criticized the Supreme Court for going “too far.” When it comes to abortion, he told an interviewer, he was “about as liberal as your grandmother."
However, activist groups at each end of the political spectrum have gained influence within the parties, Swers said, creating a clearer partisan split on the issue.
There's little room for politicians who hold what Biden once described as “middle-of-the-road" views.
“If you want to move up in national politics, it is definitely harder," Swers said. “I don’t think that someone who took the positions that he used to take could run for president now.”
During the presidential campaign, Biden also promised to support legislation that would codify Roe v. Wade in law. However, there's little chance of that passing the Senate, despite the slim Democratic majority, leaving the White House with limited options to protect abortion rights.
Advocates and White House officials have spent months engaged in conversations about steps that could be taken if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
Some ideas under consideration include highlighting the ability to obtain abortion pills through the mail, something that the Food and Drug Administration recently approved, or finding ways to help women travel to get abortions in states with more permissive laws.
“We want to see more, of course," said Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood. "We want to see all of the creative solutions in their arsenal right now, particularly at a moment where we’re in the greatest crisis.”